Novelist Tracy Chevalier’s book digs deep into 1850s Ohio with a story that weaves together Quakers, quilting and the Underground Railroad.
Honor Bright had never seen a firefly. She was amazed at her first taste of sweet corn on the cob. And the oppressive summer heat of Faithville, Ohio, made her long for her home in Bridport, England.
Bright, the protagonist of Oberlin College graduate Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, The Last Runaway, is a Quaker who emigrates to Ohio in 1850 and soon discovers the difficulty of living a principled life when confronted by unpleasant realities.
“A lot of the book is about blurring boundaries,” says Chevalier, who lives in England. “Not everybody is good or bad. It boils down to how you stand up for what you believe in.”
We talked with Chevalier about her love of Ohio and how our state found its way into her Ohioana Award-winning book, which will be released in paperback on Oct. 29.
This is the first of your novels set in America. Why did you choose Ohio?
I had the idea for this book when I was visiting Oberlin in 2009 and I saw Toni Morrison unveil a commemorative bench placed there because of Oberlin’s history as a hub of the Underground Railroad. The book is set in Ohio partly for practical reasons because I had lived there, but I became more and more fascinated by the state’s role with the railroad. And I was astonished to find a substantial Amish community just outside of Oberlin. If you take the back roads, Ohio has a lot of little secrets like that. The landscape of barns and woods and fields is glorious.
Why did you choose a Quaker as the heroine of the book?
Quakers were very influential with the Underground Railroad early on. I attended Quaker Camp every summer for seven years and remembered how they use silence as a powerful force. In the first draft, Honor Bright hardly says anything at all. Quakers at the time were tolerated but also seen as outsiders. They believed everyone was equal. They were pacifists but people were suspicious of them.
What surprised you during your research for the book?
I had always thought Quakers never kept slaves but some of them did during the 18th century. I also discovered there were Negro pews in the Quaker churches and that reminded me [Quakers] were not perfect people. They could be as bad as anyone else. This made for more of a subtle story. I didn’t want this to be a preachy book. I tried to be as understated as I can because I feel readers don’t like to be manipulated.
What was the role of quilting in the book and why did you learn to quilt?
Quilts in English and American styles were not only practical as commerce. They also gave the women of that time a creative outlet in their lives. To write about quilts, I had to learn how to make them. I had only ever sewn on buttons but I found I really liked it a lot and it’s opened up a whole new world to me. There’s a whole movement called modern quilting and the best quilts have amazing detail and creativity. I visited a lot of quilt shops in Ohio, and I will probably always have a quilt I’m working on.
You have established a niche in historical fiction. Why does it appeal to you as a writer?
It allows me to explore issues outside of my own. I really can get away from myself. I believe in writing about what you don’t know but want to know.
Your 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring has sold more than four million copies and became an Academy Award-nominated movie. How did that affect you?
It was completely unexpected and that’s probably good. I was in an innocent bubble at the time and it took some getting used to. It caused a lot more pressure from readers, publishers and myself.
How much of Tracy Chevalier is there in Honor Bright?
I was reminded of my own moving over here. I had planned to stay for six months and go back to the states. Things were much more extreme for Honor, but I noticed all the things that were different: the animals, sunlight and trees are things you take for granted. It’s the little things that ground you to a place.
For information about Tracy Chevalier’s other books, visit tracychevalier.com.